Event Recap • Chocolate with a Conscience

August 14, 2018 | | View Comments

Dena White explains why the chocolate industry is fundamentally flawed and how one company is setting out to end child slavery in cocoa bean farming.


Many people absolutely adore chocolate. Eating chocolate imbues you with a feeling of happiness. However, only the consumer feels the euphoria that comes with sinking your teeth into a luscious bar of chocolate. Cocoa bean farmers, despite meeting the high demand of a global chocolate market, face poverty wages, lack of access to education, and exploitation. Tony’s Chocolonely is on a mission to change the whole chocolate industry, one chocolate bar at a time. We were delighted to host Tony’s U.S. Marketing Manager Dena White for our July Design Museum Morning as she told us the story of how Tony’s wants to make all chocolate 100% child slavery free.


Cocoa bean trees are grown in equatorial climates; 60% of all cocoa beans are grown in West Africa, specifically in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. There are millions of small farms across this region that provide cocoa beans to every major chocolate company. On these farms, millions of children work. 90% of these children are either working illegally––not attending school despite being under the age of 13–or working in dangerous conditions. About 90,000 children have been trafficked: sold into slavery to work on cocoa bean farms. These children spend their childhoods working instead of playing or learning; the lack of education condemns them to a life of hardship.

Additionally, chocolate giants have spent immense time and effort keeping the cost of cocoa low. This, in turn, hurts the farmers and their families, ensuring that they cannot afford to send their children to school, and continuing the cycle of slave labor and poverty. Because of the low cost of cocoa and the low percentage they receive, farmers draw an annual salary of approximately $1,200 a year, which is not enough to send their children to school or advance on the socioeconomic ladder.


In 2001, two US senators set out to eradicate the worst forms of child labor within the chocolate industry in 10 years. The result was called the Harkin-Engel Protocol. It was considered a widespread success when all of the chocolate giants signed on to the agreement. However, the protocol was a non-binding agreement, and no progress seemed to be made. In 2005, the Dutch show Keuringsdienst van Waarde (KVW), which attempts to bring to light abuses in the food industry, began an investigation into the cocoa industry. They found that despite four years passing since the Harkin-Engel Protocol was signed, the chocolate companies had not even attempted to make any changes. One of the presenters, Teun van de Keuken, interviewed chocolate executives who admitted on camera that they were aware child labor was imbedded in the supply chain. After broadcasting these interviews, Teun was blacklisted from interviewing anyone from the chocolate companies, and his investigation ground to a halt.

However, Teun refused to give up. Now knowing that the most popular chocolate bars were produced with child labor, he filmed himself eating one from each brand. He argued that he had committed a crime; by knowingly consuming these bars that were made using illegal child labor, he claimed he was complicit in the enslavement of children. He attempted to call the police on himself, but he was unsuccessful. Thus, he decided to go to court. Rather than filing lawsuits against the well-resourced chocolate giants, he sued himself for complicity in child slavery. Ultimately, the judge determined that he was correct morally, but because of the lack of transparency in the supply chain, there was no legal proof that Teun had eaten bars produced with illegal child labor.

At this point, Teun was committed to making the chocolate industry better, so he decided to make 5,000 chocolate bars made free of child labor. He ensured that the farmers involved were well-paid and sourced his beans directly rather than going through the conglomerates that gather beans from all different sources and combine them into one large pool from which they purchase. His 5,000 bars sold out in one day. Teun decided to use an Americanized version of his name plus the word “Chocolonely” to indicate that it was the one lonely bar on the market created without child labor. And Tony’s Chocolonely was born.


As Dena explained to our audience at the AirBnB Portland headquarters, Tony’s is structured on three pillars. The first pillar is creating awareness. The company does not conduct any paid media or marketing as they feel it is inauthentic to their mission. Rather, they rely on “serious friends.” These are the people who believe in Tony’s mission enough to buy their bars and share the story with others. Conveniently, Tony’s prints their story on every chocolate bar wrapper. In this way, Tony’s creates grassroots awareness of the problems within the chocolate industry as well as an example of a solution.

The second pillar is setting an example. They constructed a recipe for slave-free cocoa that they share widely in hopes that other companies will adopt their practices. The recipe involves building close, personal relationships in the supply chain to ensure traceable beans. Additionally, Tony’s pays farmers 30-40% more than the market price while making a non-exclusive commitment to each farmer or cooperative for five years. Tony’s actively encourages the farmers they rely upon to form cooperatives, as this helps distribute money and labor more efficiently as well as giving farmers more power to negotiate prices with chocolate giants. Lastly, Tony’s is on the ground at cocoa bean farms, teaching farmers about best practices to improve quality and productivity.

Finally, their third pillar is inspiring others to act. As Dena explained, Tony’s is not a traditional business but a social business. Success is not the end goal but the means to the goal of creating a chocolate industry free of slave labor. Despite being a private business, they are completely transparent in their operations, going so far as to put their annual financial report on their website. Tony’s actively demonstrates that a business can be both profitable and socially conscious. Through this demonstration, they hope to convince other companies to adopt their business model and to convince consumers to be discerning when they buy chocolate. They have been immensely successful at this endeavor thus far, as Tony’s is the market leader for chocolate in the country of its founding, Holland.

Dena concluded her presentation with a powerful quote by Jean-Paul Sartre: “Once we know and are aware, we are responsible for our action, and our inaction.” Once someone becomes aware of the truth about the chocolate industry, they are making a political choice every time they buy a chocolate bar. As Dena said, from now on, “Every purchase you make is a vote for the world you want to live in.”